PITTSBURGH (AP) — A priest accused of traveling to Honduras to engage in sex with children while promoting missionary work with the poor there has been arrested by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
The Rev. Joseph Maurizio Jr., 69, was arrested Thursday and will remain in custody until a hearing Monday before a federal magistrate in Pittsburgh. The judge must decide then whether the priest will remain jailed until he can stand trial.
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown said it was "profoundly disturbed by the allegations against Father Maurizio." It said he has not functioned as pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish since federal authorities searched the parish rectory on Sept. 12.
ICE agents also searched the farm where Maurizio lived in Windber. Bishop Mark Bartchak announced four days later that Maurizio was placed on leave.
Maurizio also faces a child porn charge based on images of a prepubescent boy posing on a bed with his genitals exposed. The images were found on a computer hard drive seized during a search of the rectory, a criminal complaint said. Investigators were reviewing other pictures found on computer storage devices and a camera Maurizio used on his trips to Honduras, it said.
Maurizio has said abuse allegations against him were a bogus plot by the Honduran government to thwart his charity work.
The priest's attorney, Steven Passarello, said the criminal complaint regurgitates allegations made five years ago after the priest's charity had a falling out with a local charity. He said children were bribed or coerced into making abuse allegations.
According to the complaint, ICE's Pittsburgh office of Homeland Security Investigations began investigating in February after a board member of a nonprofit that assists Honduran street children reported abuse allegations against Maurizio on a watchdog website that tracks such claims against Catholic priests.
"The board member reported the allegations of abuse to the website after growing dissatisfied with what he believed to be an apparent lack of progress in the four-year criminal investigation of Maurizio," the complaint said.
Homeland Security agents learned that the FBI began investigating allegations that the priest abused Honduran children in 2009, it said. The FBI said it couldn't comment on the delay in the investigation but said it was working with ICE.
Homeland Security agents, in reviewing the FBI reports, learned Maurizio made regular trips of two to three weeks each to the Central American country from 1999 to 2009.
Armed with the FBI information, the Homeland Security agents traveled to Honduras this year and interviewed several witnesses, including children, who accused the priest of fondling boys, photographing them naked and offering them chocolates or money to perform sex acts on one another or with him.
Maurizio would face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of engaging in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign place. The pornography charge carries a 10-year maximum sentence upon conviction.